The Labour manifesto.
George Osborne was right, of course. It is all about values. Alan Clark wrote in his diaries of how "the trouble with Michael [Heseltine] is that he had to buy his own furniture," the kind of attitude that was once so prevalent in the Tories. Most though at the same time would never have dreamed of suggesting that death duties or inheritance tax as it has become should be all but abolished, for the reason being there is moral virtue in taxing unearned wealth. Clark might have sneered at someone needing to buy their own furniture, but would have equally sneered at someone in his position not going out into the world and making their own money. As far as the modern Conservatives are concerned, home ownership is an end in itself. The how and why doesn't enter into it; so long as the home was acquired somehow and it's worth less than a million it should be able to be passed on. The effect this will have on the housing market is completely immaterial, or rather is absolutely integral: almost every Tory policy post-2010 has been to boost house prices and to hell with the consequences. What's good for those lucky enough to have got on the housing ladder is good for the country. There could not be more difference between a party making such a promise and the others pledging to introduce a yearly tax on properties worth over £2 million.
Which brings us to today's Labour manifesto launch. Little remembered now is a certain Ed Miliband was the principal author of the last Labour manifesto, not so much the longest suicide note in history as it was an immensely elongated acceptance of fate. Where that manifesto promised a "future fair for all", illustrated by a family burning out their retinas by staring into the sun, today's instead informs us all that "Britain can be better". Well, quite. Britain also only succeeds when working people succeed, which doesn't instantly follow; bleeding working people to the bone might well give the impression of the country succeeding also, but maybe we shouldn't be splitting hairs. Where the last manifesto's cover was garish, this time the entire document is austere (PDF), the cover simply white with red text, while inside apart from the single full page photo of Ed and multiple images of said hard-working Britons, the design is remarkably minimalistic, or if you prefer, plain.
And that, frankly, is what the manifesto is. It almost reminds of the semi-witty advert Labour ran at the time of the changeover of power: not flash, just Gordon. There is very little flash contained herein, and that presumably is exactly the point. It doesn't so much say there's still no money as it does suggest any there is we're not going to splash on frivolities. Indeed, everything has been costed, or so it says on the second page, and locked in also. Not a single commitment requires additional borrowing, and in future Labour will legislate to require all manifestos be audited by the Office for Budget Responsibility. The deficit will be cut every year, the national debt will fall, dogs and cats will live together, but there won't be mass hysteria.
From not mentioning the deficit Labour has decided it can't be talked about enough. It's difficult to judge precisely why the party has decided at the last minute to invent this budget responsibility lock, or for that matter what the point of it is. As the IFS has been pointing out for some time now, Labour's economic plan is broad enough to allow for no further cuts whatsoever after 2016, which would still allow for a surplus come 2020. The manifesto doesn't enlighten us as to what cuts there will be, beyond the fact there will be cuts outside of the protected spending areas of the NHS, education and international development. We can obviously expect them not to be as severe as the ones promised by the Conservatives, yet at the same time the areas designated for cuts are those already slashed hardest. How much more in the way of savings can be found from the Home Office budget, the local government budget, the welfare budget? The manifesto also restates the commitment not to mess with the taxes that raise the most revenue, beyond putting up the top rate of income tax back up to 50p, further reducing room for manoeuvre if such promises are to be kept.
If this is meant to reassure those convinced it was Labour's profligacy in the first place that resulted in the crash and the deficit (pro-tip: it wasn't) it's both far too late and just not airtight enough. The Tories might have spent the last few weeks throwing money around, but you can promise ridiculous things like the all but abolition of inheritance tax when, regardless of whether it's deserved or not, the Conservatives are trusted on the economy. More than anything else the emphasis on the deficit and the triple lock has distracted away from what is the manifesto's greatest strength: not the policies, which are for the most part underwhelming, but the message that work isn't paying. While not specifically stating there's a crisis of productivity, it sets out how it's the quality, not the quantity of jobs that really matters, and the party will not accept Britain becoming a low-wage economy as the Conservatives are prepared to.
Naturally, saying this when so many are ready to accept secular stagnation as the new normal and doing something about it are two separate things. All the manifesto really pledges to do to improve productivity is via "a long-term investment culture", while "encouraging small businesses to grow". An National Infrastructure Committee will apparently achieve this, making recommendations and holding government to account. Short-termism in business is also fingered, but how much of a difference will really be made by giving additional rights to long-term investors when takeover bids are mounted and by requiring remuneration committees to have worker representation is open to question.
Still, there is radicalism or something approaching it hiding beneath the utilitarian wrapping. The big six energy companies will be separated into generation and supply businesses, required to open their books and sell their electricity through an open exchange, while the water companies will have to sign up to a national affordability scheme. The rail franchising system will be reviewed, a public sector operator will be allowed to take on lines and challenge the private firms and city and country regions will be given more power over the bus operators. Less immediately helpful will is the proposed repealing of the Health and Social Care bill, which will surely necessitate another NHS reorganisation, and the new "Directors of School Standards", which sounds remarkably like a way of allowing free schools just under a different guise.
The one thing more than anything else that seems absent, despite there being few policies to violent disagree with (it's hopefully indicative that I gave the biggest snort of derision to a throwaway line on building resilience in young people through the use of mindfulness) is anger. Or even a general sense of real concern for what the next five years could bring should we again have a Conservative-led government. It's not as though the Conservatives are hiding their intentions, as they did last time: they want to spending two years banging on about Europe, and could possibly even lead us out by mistake; they want to cut everyday spending to 1960s levels; they want to all but deny benefits to the young, while feather-bedding the old; they want to repeal the Human Rights Act and leave the European Convention on Human Rights; they want to make life as unpleasant as possible not just for those on benefits, but also those on low wages via universal credit. The list could go on.
Despite all this, you don't get the sense from Labour or the manifesto that 5 more years of the Tories will be that bad. We are it's true in this new territory where another coalition or some variety of moderating influence on the Conservatives seems all but a certainty, and with that in mind we've had pithy remarks about the launches of the manifestos being about the beginning of the bartering as anything else. 5 more years could mean the breaking of the public services as we know them. Britain can be better, but Labour doesn't seem to believe in itself, let alone the country.